Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Course of Empire: Destruction

"The Course of Empire: Destruction" by Thomas Cole (1836).

The events in Afghanistan this past weekend encouraged my taking a look at where we--the United States, the West, and the world in general--stand as to potential collapse. 

    Back in 2014, I published a series of 6 articles reviewing and discussing Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies published in 1988 (the link to Part 1). For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Tainter postulated that societies tend to become more complex (e.g., expanded government, higher taxes, more laws) in response to emergencies or crises. (As an example, I would recommend reading War And The Rise Of The State by Bruce D. Porter that documents how state warfare drove the creation of centralized government and the administrative state--my review is here). 

    Over the course of a society's history, the complexity often brings additional benefits (e.g., the creation of transcontinental railway networks in the U.S. or the creation of the interstate highway system). But Tainter also posited that at some point, each additional level of complexity starts to deliver diminishing returns on investment. And, in fact, this will eventually lead to a point where negative returns set in--the costs outweigh the benefits of each new level of complexity. Once a state reaches this point, it essentially is living on its reserves (or seed corn, if you will), and eventually a crises will arise that the society is unable to address because it lacks the energy or resources to do so. In short, the society collapses. 

    Collapse doesn't necessarily mean a complete collapse into barbarism (although it might; e.g., the Bronze Age Collapse or the Mayan collapse), but could be a devolution to a lower level of complexity: that is the state may collapse and disappear, but the collapse might stop at the provincial level (at least in some provinces) as it appears happened with the collapse of the Roman Empire, first splitting into the Western and Eastern Empires, and then collapsing into more localized governments in the West. It also may not be instantaneous. Rome, for instance, declined over centuries.

    Tainter also suggested that collapse can begin a cascading event among closely tied states, what he describes as "peers." And this has special implications for our world today. He explained:

In fact, there are major differences between the current and the ancient worlds that have important implications for collapse. One of these is that the world today is full. That is to say, it is filled by complex societies; these occupy every sector of the globe, except the most desolate. This is a new factor in human history. Complex societies as a whole are a recent and unusual aspect of human life. The current situation, where all societies are so oddly constituted, is unique. It was shown earlier in this chapter that ancient collapses occurred, and could only occur, in a power vacuum, where a complex society (or cluster of peer polities) was surrounded by less complex neigh­bors. There are no power vacuums left today. Every nation is linked to, and influ­enced by, the major powers, and most are strongly linked with one power bloc or the other. Combine this with instant global travel, and as Paul Valery noted, ' . . . nothing can ever happen again without the whole world's taking a hand' (1962: 115 [emphasis in original]).

Later on, he adds:

Collapse today is neither an option nor an immediate threat. Any nation vulnerable to collapse will have to pursue one of three options: (1) absorption by a neighbor or some larger state; (2) economic support by a dominant power, or by an international financing agency; or (3) payment by the support population of whatever costs are needed to continue complexity, however detrimental the marginal return. A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse, for if any national government disintegrates its population and territory will be absorbed by some other.

(p. 213). Also:

    Peer polity systems tend to evolve toward greater complexity in a lockstep fashion as, driven by competition, each partner imitates new organizational, technological, and military features developed by its competitor(s) . The marginal return on such developments declines, as each new military breakthrough is met by some counter­ measure, and so brings no increased advantage or security on a lasting basis. A society trapped in a competitive peer polity system must invest more and more for no increased return, and is thereby economically weakened. And yet the option of withdrawal or collapse does not exist. So it is that collapse (from declining marginal returns) is not in the immediate future for any contemporary nation. This is not, however, due so much to anything we have accomplished as it is to the competitive spiral in which we have allowed ourselves to become trapped.  

    Here is the reason why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to, and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.

(p. 214, emphasis in original). Thus, writing in 1988, he stated that "[i]n the world today they will not be allowed to collapse, but will be bailed out either by a dominant partner or by an international financing agency." Id. That collapse is not imminent is not necessarily a reprieve. "As marginal returns decline (a process ongoing even now), up to the point where a new energy subsidy is in place, the standard of living that industrial societies have enjoyed will not grow so rapidly, and for some groups and nations may remain static or decline." (p. 215).

      This is not to suggest that collapse will forever be impossible. Only more catastrophic. Tainter explains:

Peer polities then tend to undergo long periods of upwardly-spiraling competitive costs, and downward marginal returns. This is terminated finally by domination of one and acquisition of a new energy subsidy (as in Republican Rome and Warring States China), or by mutual collapse (as among the Mycenaeans and the Maya). Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.

(p. 214, emphasis in original). In other words, Tainter paints a picture of collapse for the modern world similar to the Bronze Age Collapse when the majority of the nations around the Mediterranean and Near East collapsed entirely and Egypt was forever weakened. Except, this time, it will be global.

    In Part 6 of my review of Tainter's book, I decided to give a more up to date view of some of the factors that Tainter used to measure complexity and declining returns on energy and expenditures. I observed that the average wages for men adjusted for inflation actually peaked in 1973.  While per student spending in education was at an all time high (having doubled, in real dollars, since the 1970s), student achievement had declined or stagnated. This was not limited to just public education, but extended to colleges and universities: tuition had increased by 1000% in real dollars from 1960 (and much more if fees and other costs were included), but students learned less. And, I would add, the value of a college degree has declined for those students that actually do graduate.

    A then recent Wall Street Journal article observed that Federal and state welfare spending, adjusted for inflation, was 16 times greater than it was in 1964, but it hadn't made a dent in the poverty rates. In fact, the author related:

LBJ promised that the war on poverty would be an "investment" that would "return its cost manifold to the entire economy." But the country has invested $20.7 trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years. What does America have to show for its investment? Apparently, almost nothing: The official poverty rate persists with little improvement. ...

In fact, as I noted at the time, rather than eradicate poverty, the various government programs have actually exacerbated the primary causes of poverty, such as the number of children born out of wedlock and raised in single-parent households, and disincentivised people from working.

    I noted a study that showed that Americans spend more on complying with government regulations than they do on healthcare, food or transportation-- a $14,974 "hidden tax" every year for the average U.S. household, representing 23 percent of the $65,596 annual average household income in America. But this came at little or no benefit to consumers. Nobel-prize-winning economist Ronald Coase noted research under his auspices while editor of The Journal of Law and Economics revealed that not only had government regulations made products more expensive, but "the product was worse adapted to the needs of consumers, than it otherwise would have been." "[W]hat was my explanation for the results we had? I argued that the most probable explanation was that the government now operates on such a massive scale that it had reached the stage of what economists call negative marginal returns. Anything additional it does, it messes up." And, he added:

The problem, of course, is that a government that does a lot of things badly is more appealing to the political class: more opportunity for graft, and for exercising the inflated self-importance that probably drives politicians even more than graft. The question is whether the government exists for the country's benefit, or for the benefit of the political class. At present, the answer to that question is depressingly clear.

      Reduced marginal return shows up on military expenditures as well. For instance, in 2000, it was observed that over the prior 12 years, the officer/enlisted ratio in the US military has slipped from one officer for every six enlisted; to almost one officer for five enlisted.  It was 1:10 during World War II. Costs of procuring military equipment also continues to increase, while the the marginal effectiveness has stagnated. In 2010, the Economist published an article on the phenomena:

    Mr Gates is grappling with the conundrum faced by many of his predecessors: the rising costs of military manpower and equipment, which strain even America's gargantuan $700 billion defence budget (almost as much as the defence spending of the rest of the world put together). Just to keep up America's existing combat units, he notes, costs 2-3% more each year. But the annual budget is rising by only 1-2%. 

    Mr Gates wants the Pentagon to save 1-2% a year in overheads. A study of defence bureaucracies by McKinsey, a global management consultancy, suggests that American forces, though the most potent in the world, are among the least efficient, at least in terms of the “tooth-to-tail” ratio, the proportion of fighting forces to support personnel (the best were Norway, Kuwait and the Netherlands). American forces deploy and fight globally, so need more support than those only defending national borders. Nevertheless, the study suggests there is flab to be trimmed.

    Manpower in all-volunteer armies, as most Western ones are these days, is expensive. Pay has to be competitive. In America, moreover, a big burden is the cost of health-care programmes for current and former servicemen, and their families. “Health-care costs are eating the defence department alive,” complains Mr Gates. Yet he has a hard time restraining Congress's generosity to soldiers and veterans. 

    One response to high manpower costs is to rely on technology. But that does not come cheap. Study after study shows that the price of combat aircraft has been rising substantially faster than inflation, often faster than GDP. The same is true of warships. 

    In a book published in 1983, Norman Augustine, a luminary of the aerospace industry, drafted a series of lighthearted “laws”. In one aphorism, he plotted the exponential growth of unit cost for fighter aircraft since 1910 (see chart 2), and extrapolated it to its absurd conclusion: 

    “In the year 2054, the entire defence budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.” 

    Nearly three decades on, Mr Augustine says, “we are right on target. Unfortunately nothing has changed.” These days Raptors go for $160m apiece ($350m including the cost of developing the jet), compared with $50m-60m for the venerable F-16. In the long run, high unit costs must limit numbers. Since 1970 America's fleets of combat aircraft and major warships have shrunk, even as defence spending rose (see chart 3).

* * *

    Such are the ingredients for a spiral of cost and delay: technological stumbles hold up development; delay raises costs; governments postpone work further to avoid busting yearly budgets, incurring greater long-term costs. With time, technology becomes outdated, so weapons must be redesigned, giving the top brass a chance to tinker endlessly with requirements. In the end, governments cut the size of the purchase, so driving up unit costs further. There were supposed to be 132 stealthy B-2 bombers but only 20 were built. They cost $2 billion each.

    Repeated reforms have failed to break this dire cycle. According to the last full report by America's Government Accountability Office (GAO), the cost of 96 of America's biggest weapons programmes in 2008 had risen on average by 25%, incurring an average delay of 22 months.

The article goes on to claim that the problem is even more acute in Europe. 

    For a more specific example, I found an LA Times article from 2013 that noted that the cost of a single MRAP--a vehicle having the humble role of moving troops from point A to B on a road--cost $1,000,000 each. Moreover, thousands of the vehicles were being cut up into scrap because it is cheaper to scrap the vehicles than to spend $250,000 to $450,000 to refurbish them.

    And I go on with other examples of negative returns: the TSA, Obama Care, and the 2012 Stimulus. 

    That was 2014. And now? 

    Biden released a statement on August 14 that noted:

Over our country’s 20 years at war in Afghanistan, America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion dollars, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in U.S. history.

At least he was honest enough to admit that "One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country." I don't like Biden, but I have to acknowledge that he had the backbone to quit throwing good money after bad. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we have spent $1 trillion and thousands of military personnel on a war that netted us essentially nothing. Talk about a negative return.

    The most egregious example is, of course, the mishandling of Covid-19. One can certainly argue over the number that died because of the virus versus dying with the virus. But even taking government statistics at face value, while worse than the seasonal flu, it was nowhere as bad as the Spanish Flu which the United States survived without mass lockdowns. In fact, looking at states that didn't impose lockdowns, or limited the extent of lockdowns, it doesn't appear that the lockdowns had any measurable impact on the spread of Covid-19. 

    But it had a whole slew of other impacts. First and foremost is that millions were driven from jobs or saw businesses fail. The percentage of adults employed in the workforce fell from nearly 60% to just over 51%. In May 2020, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Oxford Economics reported research showing that employee had lost a cumulative $1.3 trillion in annualized income due to the coronavirus pandemic. An October 2020 paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimated that the cumulative financial costs of the COVID-19 pandemic related to the lost output and health reduction would exceed $16 trillion, assuming that it was contained by fall 2021. (See also here).  In March 2021, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation indicated that the federal government had "enacted six major bills, costing about $5.3 trillion, to help manage the pandemic and mitigate the economic burden on families and businesses." (See also this Fox News article also from March noting that the federal government spending on Covid relief was set to hit $6 trillion, and this March USA Today article). "Despite that financial assistance," CBS reports, "millions of Americans remain in financial distress, with about 4 in 10 people saying their income remains below its pre-pandemic levels, according to a survey from financial services firm TransUnion."

    But that is not all. No, that is not all. As you know, the Biden Administration is seeking additional trillions in infrastructure and social spending. For instance, just last week, "the U.S. Senate passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act" and the Dems are looking at trying to pass another $3.5 trillion pork laden bill.

    As a consequence of all of this spending, we are looking at inflation, probably lasting for years. City Journal ran a piece that notes that the Labor Department’s newest consumer price index (CPI) numbers are up 5.4% from just a year ago, although the author describes seeing increases of 10% or more for various products and services. That author explains:

    Yet, we have reasons to believe that this moment is more like the 1970s, when inflation averaged more than 5 percent annually and was so volatile that it topped 13 percent by 1980. First of all, last year’s recession was more of a supply shock than a demand shock. We shut down large swaths of the economy for many months. Unlike the 2008 recession, the 1974 recession also involved a supply shock, in the form of high oil prices resulting from the OPEC embargo, which caused shortages. This rippled across the economy, making goods more expensive, just as shortages on many goods do now.

    The embargo ended, but inflation remained. A supply shock is not a sufficient condition for sustained inflation, but it can help produce it when conditions are right. Those conditions take hold when inflation expectations become unanchored. A big driver of inflation, economists believe, is people’s expectations for it. We plan purchases and set wages based on those expectations, so inflation, even if its initial causes are temporary, can become self-propagating if people think it will stick around or make long-term commitments on short-term price changes. People observed rising prices from the shock in the 1970s and expected inflation to stay high.

    They believed this partly because they had little faith that anything could be done about it. Wage and price controls designed to fight inflation in the 1960s had proved harmful and ineffective. The Federal Reserve hiked interest rates, but not enough to bring down inflation. Worse, in 1971, the U.S. abandoned the Bretton Woods regime, which had tied the dollar to gold. This created some uncertainty around the dollar and the credibility of the Fed.

    Then along came Paul Volcker, appointed Fed chairman by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, who raised rates high and long enough. He showed markets and consumers that the Fed did have the tools—and most critically the will—to fight inflation, even if it meant triggering a recession, which it did. Most importantly, Volker proved that the Fed was independent from politics and fully committed to its objectives. This made markets believe that, even without Bretton Woods, the dollar was a stable source of value. There have been oil-price spikes since the 1970s but not inflation in large part because of a collective belief that the Federal Reserve would do something about it.

And the Federalist reports that "the Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that the producer price index, which measures changes in selling prices received by domestic producers of goods and services, hit an all-time high of 7.8 percent for 12 months ending in July after massive federal spending continues to shake down the American economy."

    But, as Glenn Reynolds wrote back in May of this year, while the working and middle class was being hammered, the rich, the powerful, and the intelligentsia were doing quite well. Yet again, our political leaders put the interests of the wealthy ahead of the interests of the citizens.

    Now, on top of everything else, is the sudden collapse in Afghanistan. As you know, in a lightning advance, the Taliban quickly overran the Afghanistan capital, Kabal, this past weekend with the Taliban leadership giving a victory speech from the Afghan Presidential Palace. Part of the secret to the Taliban's success is that it paid Afghan military commanders to surrender cities and unitsChina, Russia, Pakistan and Turkey all appear set to formally recognize the Taliban government

    Of course, thousands are trying to flee the country by air, and U.S. troops are trying to secure the airport and keep control of the panicked people trying to get on planes. But, as I noted recently, "bugging out" in situations like this are pretty much limited to the wealthy and the connected. For instance, Kabul's Hamad Kazai Airport has been closed to all non-military (i.e., non-coalition) flights. Per the article, "Westerners will be evacuated by their home nations on military flights but the Taliban has said that it will not allow Afghan citizens to leave." (See also this article). Thus, for instance, all U.S. Embassy staff have been evacuated. Similarly, plans are underway to evacuate and temporarily settle on military bases some 30,000 people of people that worked for the U.S. in Afghanistan as well as their families. In other words, the connected. And as for the rich? Well, as the Daily Mail reports, "Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani fled from the Taliban ‘in four cars and a helicopter filled with cash and had to leave some behind because it wouldn’t all fit in’, Russians claim." (See also this article from PJ Media). 

    Some of the big perks the Taliban will receive from their takeover are vast stores military supplies and equipment left by the U.S. for the use by Afghanistan's army to prevent a Taliban takeover. This loss of equipment is so bad that the U.S. has sent a flight of B-52 bombers to destroy aircraft that we had left for Afghanistan to use

    As would be expected, there is now a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth because the Taliban will be cracking down on women rights, and probably killing female politicians and the LGBT. (See here, and here). Some in the West are even saying that we must do something (i.e., send men in to kill and be killed) to save the women of Afghanistan

    And we will see more like this pitiable story: "'No one cares about us': Crying Afghan girl shares fears of 'dying slowly in history' in viral video as her country is taken over by the Taliban." Of course, that is not true. The West cared and spent over a trillion dollars and thousands of lives to try and change Afghanistan. But the Afghanistan leaders, and the men in its military, didn't care. The Afghan military couldn't even last long enough for the Western countries to withdraw their troops. Talk about a colossal waste of lives and money by the U.S. and its allies.

    What Afghanistan represents is the complete lack of competence among the intelligence community and out military leadership. As to the intelligence community, I would direct you to a couple articles. The first is from 1945, "Don’t Ignore The CIA’s Intelligence Failure On Afghanistan." The author, Michael Rubin, explains:

    ... Not only did the Central Intelligence Agency and other US intelligence agencies wildly underestimate the speed of the Taliban advance, but they also appear to have been blind to the extent of political dealings the Taliban had made as the withdrawal loomed and the military prepositioning the Taliban achieved to begin a near-simultaneous assault on provincial capitals. They appear to have missed the fact that Taliban shadow governors were already in place, alongside their staff, to take over provincial functions.

    The question of what went wrong with US intelligence is not simply Monday morning quarterbacking. Both the Trump administration and then Biden’s team prefaced America’s withdrawal on the notion that US intelligence capabilities would enable the United States to maintain an over-the-horizon strike capability against both insurgents and terrorists. The CIA’s failure, however, shows that as US forces withdrew, they were essentially blind and that the White House built America’s post-withdrawal strategy on a rotten foundation.

Rubin graciously suggests that perhaps the CIA misunderstood Afghan history and culture, including that the Taliban came to power in the 1994-1998 period via defections and political deals rather than military might; or the chief-of-station in Pakistan was blind to the fact that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI0 agency was leading him astray; or wishful thinking played a role. But Rubin notes this is not the first time the CIA has been caught completely off guard, specifically mentioning how the CIA was completely taken off-guard by Azerbaijan's attack on Nagorno-Karabakh last year. Rubin surmises that:

To misread intentions and capabilities so completely raises questions about whether the intelligence community has improved its products and capabilities since its 9/11 failures, or whether it has instead become just another jobs program focused more on playing Washington politics than conducting its core mission well.

 And, swinging back to the topic of this piece, that is the crux of the matter: notwithstanding the increase of money and resources flowing into the CIA and other intelligence agencies, they aren't any better than they were in 2001, or even earlier when they completely missed the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union.

    More to the point, the CIA should have seen this coming. An op-ed published at Small Wars Journal and written by a former Special Forces NCO/Officer with extensive experience on the ground in Afghanistan notes that the Taliban "tenaciously established shadow governments and auxiliary support groups around the country since late 2008." And:

The Taliban cannot do what it’s doing without the support of a state or elements of a state’s architecture.  There are only three factories in Pakistan which produce the main ingredient for the Taliban’s mass casualty IEDs. “Members” of the ISI have maintained support of the general Taliban movement since they helped organize and train them in 1995. China has given tacit support with assurances of international recognition, once the Taliban attain power in Kabul. 

 In other words, the CIA knew essentially what the Taliban were doing to prepare for a U.S. withdrawal, and that they were being supported by Pakistan, but no one did anything.

    The military leadership has also been incompetent. The generals were all ready to stand up against Pres. Trump if he had ordered them to clear an area of supporters, but were willing to author or acquiesce to rules of engagement in Afghanistan that endangered our troops' lives and limited our ability to effectively engage the threat. The military leadership has been more concerned with social justice issues such as admitting homosexuals and women into the military, making troops march in high-heels, remove urinals from navy ships so as to not offend women, fly pride flags and support BLM, and complaining to Congress about "white rage" to actually do their jobs. In short, we have a military that is incapable of winning wars, but instead views half of America as The Enemy.

    And that brings me to a final point, one not in Tainter's book. It seems that as empires collapse, they increasingly view their own people--that is, the citizens of the polis or nation that is the head of the Empire--as its enemies. This seemed the case in Rome where citizenship was no longer protection against the excesses of government, and the citizenry became nothing more than sheep to shear. Similarly, in World War I, the European Empires thought nothing of killing millions of their own citizens in what was essentially a pointless war with no clear path to victory. Following World War II, beginning in the 1960's, all the major Western Nations--including Britain, West Germany, France, and the United States--opened their borders to foreign migration from third world countries with the resultant divestment of political power from the native populations and long term wage stagnation: they had put the interests of the very wealthy ahead of the interests of the citizens. 

    And, today, in the United States, white people are vilified, conservatives hated, leftist terrorist groups applauded, and anyone opposing "the narrative" is silenced and considered a putative terrorist. Upon hearing from the Census Bureau that the number of whites had declined in absolute numbers, Washington Post's columnist Jennifer Rubin celebrated the news tweeting, "A more diverse, more inclusive society. This is fabulous news. Now we need to prevent minority White rule." (See also, "Jennifer Rubin et al. Rejoice at the Impending Minority Status of Whites" by Kevin MacDonald at the Occidental Observer and "End Minority Rule" by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt at The New York Times). The reality is that the government--federal as well as many state and local governments--are at war with the native population. 

    So, does this mean we are witnessing the Fall of Empire (speaking of the American Empire). Yes. But it has been a slow process extending back to at least the 1960s. Will Afghanistan push us over the edge? Probably not, although our reaction to events there could, much like our response to 9/11 was more damaging to the United States than were the actual attacks (as I've noted several times before, dropping a nuke on Al Qaeda and Taliban forces would have been cheaper and more effective than what we wound up doing). Will the trillions due to the over-reaction to Covid push us over the edge? I don't know, but even if it doesn't, it does mean that the U.S. will have less access to credit when an actual emergency strikes.  In short, we are no longer in a situation of "if" the United States will collapse, but "when".


  1. Well, that sure sounds like a livestream topic . . . something wicked this way comes?


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